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Biggest coffee hour imaginable

First impressions of a first-time General Assembly goer.
By Kimberly French
Fall 2008 8.18.08

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Drummers at the General Assembly (Nancy Pierce)

The Bronx-based percussion ensemble Heritage O.P. energized the Opening Ceremony at the 2008 General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Nancy Pierce)

Like the vast majority of Unitarian Universalists, I had never been to a General Assembly—until this year. The 2008 GA in Fort Lauderdale was my first time at the annual gathering where we UUs do our denominational business and learn, share, and meet one another.

At times it felt like the first week of college: the squeals and hugs of happy reunions, a self-selected micro-community, with shared worldview and experiences.

Everybody but me seemed to know everybody else. Then too, nearly everybody smiled and said hello in a small-town way, and conversations were easy to start. Several times I got that old In Way Over My Head freshman feeling, as I struck up a conversation with someone nearby and noticed the “Ph.D.” on her nametag. One biologist and congregational president-elect patiently explained to me speaker Lynn Margulis’s endosymbiotic theory and her own concerns about potential revisions to our Seventh Principle.

Also like college, how come all the workshops you want to attend seem to be at the same time? How are you supposed to decide between Meg Barnhouse’s “Mango Thoughts in a Meatloaf Town” concert of witty, irreverent songs and stories, and “Listening to Experience,” ideas from ministers of the UUA’s fastest-growing congregations?

Yet, as we used to say at the Southern Baptist university I attended, it wasn’t heaven. There was still plenty of ego walking around, and evident shortcomings. Speakers urged: We could do a lot better with implementing our Green Sanctuaries, better with our ministry to youth and young adults, and especially better with growing our congregations.

Other times it felt like Maine’s Common Ground Fair, but on the all-UU-all-the-time channel, with far more silvery beards and bobs than golden dreads and shaved heads. Bright T-shirts asking “Got Love?” “Got Hope?” or “Got Joy?” (from the River of Grass UU Congregation in Plantation, Florida) sprinkled through the constant flow of folks moving from plenary to workshop to exhibit hall.

In the UU souk, vendors hawked fair-trade coffee and Darwin fish car plaques, portable chalice kits and vibrantly colored silk ministers’ stoles, alongside experts happy to enlighten you on what GLBT­QQIA means. (“Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, or allies,” I learned.)

Sometimes GA felt like that oxymoron, a UU megachurch, the biggest coffee and conversation hour you can imagine, stretching on for days, with rocking gospel singers, an orchestra, large projection screens, shuttle buses, and constant logistical instructions. In one glorious mega-moment, the Heritage O.P. percussion ensemble laid down an irresistible beat, pumping energy up through the feet of every being in the house, as a parade of congregational banners flowed into the opening worship.

And I think I got a bit of the megachurch appeal, what attracts many others to General Assembly: thousands of people lifting their voices up, working together on the world I want to help create.


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